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When avant-garde designer Rick Owens celebrated the 20th anniversary of his eponymous label this fall, he did so on a grand and unusual scale, installing a towering replica of his torso, 25 feet tall and painted stark white, one arm raising a fiery torch, above the entrance to Selfridges in London. Created by frequent Owens collaborator Douglas Jennings and set against the department store’s columned facade, the sculpture, part of an art-meets- fashion collaboration called The World of Rick Owens, was a striking if slightly unsettling sight. Besides the designer’s likeness, Owens’s “world” also included elaborate visual installations in store windows, a capsule collection and a curated space featuring furniture and design pieces offering insight into the designer’s wonderfully weird mind. All told, it was one of the boldest displays yet of the merging of art and fashion outside of a museum space. And it was at the fore of a growing phenomenon, spurred by an effort to lure customers, generate buzz and compete against edgy online retailers nipping at traditional retail’s heels: the department store as art gallery.

Douglas Jennings's monumental Rick Owens sculpture looms over the entrance to Selfridges in London.

“As luxury and retail is an extremely competitive space, it’s important for brands to continuously innovate in order to keep their relevancy,” says Dalia Strum, a digital strategist and instructor at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “Online shopping is on the rise and brick and mortar locations need to provide a value-add for potential consumers. These installations have proven to continuously draw attention and traffic due to their quick turnover.”

Merging fashion and art in the department store isn’t an entirely new phenomenon; retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys in New York have historically collaborated with artists on their window displays during the holidays, says Georgie Stout, founding partner and creative director of New York-based design consultancy 2x4. Selfridges is treading lightly into the New Year with its January street window takeover termed “Bright Old Things,” which spotlights an eclectic mix of well-known and under-the-radar artists, from an architect-turned-topiarist, to a punk musician/artist, and a furniture designer, all ranging in age from 40 to 80+.

One of the Bright Old Things window installations at Selfridges

Luxe retailer Bergdorf Goodman, meanwhile, has taken to elevating fashion as art in its legendary Fifth Avenue store windows all year long, starting this past May with a celebration of the Costume Institute’s Charles James exhibit. Bergdorf’s enlisted contemporary designers such as Ralph Rucci, Mary Katrantzou and Rodarte to put their own spin on James’ structured creations; those one-of-a-kind pieces, surrounded by historical references to the couturier’s work, could be purchased directly from the windows. In September, Bergdorf’s partnered with Sotheby’s to preview the auction house’s Contemporary Art Sale and created gallery-esque windows featuring works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Dan Flavin, serving as a backdrop to showcase the store’s fall fashion. Even Bergdorf’s recent holiday windows highlight art in all its forms, from architecture, to sculpture, painting and dance.

“Department stores have been transforming themselves from a merchandise-driven environment to an experiential setting of lifestyle goods, epicurean offerings and even services,” says Tom Julian, one of the directors of New York-based The Doneger Group, a retail and merchandising consulting firm. “Art can allow a traditional retailer to become more historical, more cultural, an edgy retailer can be more directional, and an emerging retailer can be seen as an innovator, all thanks to the art theme.”

Those experiences are progressively making the leap beyond the window display and inside – or, in the case of Selfridges’ Rick Owens exhibit – outside, the department store environment. In May, London’s Harrod’s department store presented the “Pradasphere,” an in-store exhibit taking up a wide expanse of store real estate on the fourth floor, tracing the Italian design house’s inspirations ranging from art, architecture and film. Iconic looks from the past 100 years were housed in glass cases, and a Prada-inspired café was created in which to ponder the brand’s intellectual approach to fashion. “Creating social spaces inside of retail, where the public can engage with a brand at a more intellectual level, and connect artists and other collaborators work to the fashion brand as well,” says Stout.

Douglas Coupland augments his Gumhead sculpture at Holt Renfrew Men in Toronto.

Not to be outdone, high-end department store Isetan in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district bills itself as a “fashion museum”, which features 21 discovery areas throughout the store where customers can brush up on the latest fashion trends as they peruse outfits. Meanwhile, an almost dizzying array of limited-time art exhibits and pop-up stores showcase of-the-moment designers such as 3.1 Phillip Lim and more recently, Kenzo, where shoppers immersed themselves in the surreal world of filmmaker David Lynch, whose films inspired the brand’s fall 2014 collection (a “Red Room”-themed photo booth was a hit on social media).

Closer to home, Canadian department stores have also been upping their game when it comes to merging the worlds of art and fashion. Holt Renfrew has twice partnered with the Art Gallery of Ontario, first in September 2013, with its “David Bowie Is…” exhibit in which the retailer dedicated its Toronto Bloor Street storefront to the glam-rocker’s extravagant aesthetic and housed an in-store pop-up shop with Bowie-inspired merchandise. In October, during the store’s “Italian Immersion” event celebrating the beauty of Italy, Holt’s spotlighted the AGO’s Michelangelo: Quest for Genius show in its flagship storefront windows, while in-store visuals paid homage to Italian art and fashion.

“The goal of connecting with art is to celebrate the communities that we live and work in and where our stores reside,” says Jackie Charest, divisional VP of marketing at Holt Renfrew. “As a company, we really encourage the growth of creativity, innovation and design talent both in Canada and internationally – for us, it’s a way to curate that journey of discovery for our consumers.” Up next for Holt Renfrew: a spotlight on Canadian artist Douglas Coupland and his new exhibit “Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything” in partnership with the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, which opens at the ROM on January 31. Holt’s is exhibiting “Gumhead,” a massive, eight by six-feet, gum-based, crowdsourced self-portrait of the artist at its 100 Bloor St. location in Toronto, while Coupland-inspired designs fill the flagship store’s windows at 50 Bloor St. “Think of a Douglas Coupland focus that runs right across Bloor seamlessly,” says Charest. Holt Renfrew Yorkdale is also getting in on the action by showcasing Coupland’s “Slogans for the 21st Century” on 29-foot-tall video screens flanking the store’s main entrance.

An Isabella Blow-inspired mannequin at Hudson's Bay in Toronto.

The Room at Hudson’s Bay’s Queen Street store has become a sort of go-to spot for small-scale fashion exhibitions. In October, The Room presented “Fashion Blows,” a two-week exhibit showcasing the life and over-the-top wardrobe of stylist and fashion editor Isabella Blow, who famously championed U.K.-based designers Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. The show was a mere slice of the original, full-scale exhibition “Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore” shown at London’s Somerset House last year. “The thing that was extraordinary about [the London show] was that you actually saw that [Isabella Blow] had worn these, that she’d lived in them,” says Nicholas Mellamphy, VP, buying director at The Room, who notes that unlike in the museum space, viewers at The Room could take photos and get an up close look at the garments. “We don’t pretend to be a museum and we don’t pretend to be curators, but we do know the importance or relevance of a pop culture moment and we were able to do that in a very short [amount of] time.”

In November, on the heels of the Isabella Blow exhibit, The Room’s creative team brought to life New York designer Thom Browne’s whimsical spring 2015 runway show in its retail space, complete with AstroTurf carpeting, models dressed as living flowers walking on stilts and mannequins dressed in the designer’s kooky head-to-toe prints. “We really wanted people to get an idea of the fashion show without presenting it in a fashion concept,” says Mellamphy. “We wanted people to almost, in essence, walk into the runway.”

Poppy Thom Browne looks at Hudson's Bay.

The two-day presentation, which culminated in a cocktail party with the designer himself, was more circus-come-to-life than staid runway presentation, making it prime social media-bait. “Done right, social media can create a viral spread and a desire for people to view [the exhibit] in person,” says the Fashion Institute’s Strum, which, in turn, “could lead to shopping within the location they’re housed.” Ultimately though, these partnerships are about fostering a long-term relationship with the consumer. “With fashion and products being so accessible now online to everyone everywhere, the challenge in the retail space is for brands to really connect with their audiences,” says Stout. “Creating unique experiences gives the audience a reason to come into the store to see something out of the ordinary and special.”

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